The 700 Club

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Ricky Rudd will be starting his 700th consecutive Winston Cup race at Pocono this weekend. (It will be his 787th overall start which ranks him fourth on the all time list behind Richard Petty, Dave Marcis and Darrell Waltrip.) That’s a pretty remarkable feat especially in light of how desperately Rudd struggled during his last two seasons as an owner-driver. Only two other active Cup drivers have more than 700 starts, Terry Labonte and Bill Elliott.

The first race of Rudd’s 700 race streak was the season opening Riverside race back in 1981 the first race of that season. For newer fans I offer a look back at what racing (and the world) was like back in that era.

Of the 37 drivers who started that Riverside race only Terry Labonte, Kyle Petty and Rudd remain active drivers. (Bill Elliott only started 13 races that year and decided to sit out the Riverside opener in 1981. Ironically he would win his first career Cup race at Riverside in November of 1983. Elliott did compete in the 1981 Daytona 500, the second race of the 1981 season, and finished sixth.)

The start of Rudd’s streak just happened to coincide with the introduction of the “little cars” into NASCAR. Gone were the mid 70s Chargers, Cutlasses and Monte Carlos that served as the workhorses of Winston Cup teams for a decade. NASCAR rules forced the teams to adopt the 110 inch wheelbase cars, the so called “downsized” car that Detroit was selling that year. (Though they weren’t selling a whole lot of them. In 1981 Detroit sold just 6.2 million vehicles, the lowest number in twenty years. The Japanese manufacturers agreed to voluntary quotas to avoid congressional mandated limits.) The drivers by and large hated the new cars and got particularly alarmed at Daytona when the cars showed a tendency to go airborne for no apparent reason. Bobby Allison and team owner Harry Ranier had pulled a fast one (literally and figuratively) building a Pontiac LeMans. The Lemans was more of a sedan than a coupe like the Pontiac Grand Prix which was also legal for racing that year. The LeMans proved to provide excellent downforce and good speed without quirky handling. All the other team owners wailed and wept to NASCAR demanding spoiler concessions (sound familiar?) and NASCAR finally rendered the LeMans un-competitive with nearly weekly rules changes. NASCAR said they didn’t want everyone to build a LeMans making Winston Cup a single car series. They did so anyway with the Buick Regal winning 22 of 31 points races run that season. Buick would go on to win 25 of thirty races in 1982.

The reigning Winston Cup champion in 1981 was a fellow by the name of Dale Earnhardt. Most folks felt that Dale’s 1980 championship was a fluke deal and as a driver he was highly overrated. Earnhardt didn’t do much to dispel that notion in 1981 either failing to win a race. Mid-way through the season he quit the Rod Osterlund team he drove for when millionaire megalomaniac scoundrel JD Stacy bought the team. Earnhardt signed on to drive for Richard Childress (who had been an owner/driver to that point) but quit RCR at the end of 1981 to drive for Bud Moore in a (gasp!) Ford.

Rudd and Earnhardt’s careers were to become intertwined. When Earnhardt left Childress racing Ricky Rudd signed on to replace him in the driver’s seat. When Earnhardt left Bud’s team to return to Childress Racing, Rudd took over driving for Moore. And many Earnhardt fans feel to this day it was Rudd that cost Earnhardt the 1989 Winston Cup title (which would have eventually allowed Earnhardt to win eight titles.) Earnhardt had bumped Rudd more than once over the years at at North Wilkesboro in October of 1989 Rudd decided to get even. Earnhardt had led 343 laps of the race but a late race caution allowed Rudd to restart the race in second right on the back bumper of the 3 car. With two laps to go Rudd hit Earnhardt and both cars went into the wall. Earnhardt fell from the lead to 10th place. After the race he had to be physically restrained as he sought to attack Rudd. Earnhardt would lose that year’s title to Rusty Wallace by twelve points.

Arguably the best race of 1981 was the August event at Talladega. Terry Labonte and Darrell Waltrip were so intent on racing one another to the stripe they both went high and allowed rookie Ron Bouchard to dive underneath them to take the win by two feet over Waltrip. Imagine this year’s Darlington finish only the cars were three wide, not two. Bouchard went on to claim Rookie of the Year honors in 1981.

Darrell Waltrip won the 1981 title winning twelve of the 31 races, finishing in the top 5 a remarkable 21 times and scoring a total of 25 top 10 finishes. Even Matt Kenseth doesn’t have that sort of batting average this season. Waltrip edged out perennial rival Bobby Allison by 53 points. Allison won that year’s Most Popular Driver honors, a title he claimed a total of seven times including four consecutive times from 1980-83. Rudd finished sixth in that year’s Winston Cup chase, one position ahead of Dale Earnhardt and two spots ahead of Richard Petty (who won three times that year). Terry Labonte finished fourth in the standings.

Of course winning championships wasn’t quite as lucrative back in 1981. Despite winning the title and twelve races Waltrip earned less than $800,000 that year. There are single races that pay more than that for a win these days. For comparison’s sake in 2002 Geoff Bodine started just ten races and posted one top 5 finish to earn over 1.2 million bucks. Jamie McMurray started six races (and of course won one) and earned $717,000 despite finishing 46th in points.

Part of the reason the money was so scarce (in relative terms) is there wasn’t much TV coverage of Winston Cup racing in 1981. The Riverside race that started Rudd’s streak wasn’t televised. CBS showed the Daytona 500 and ABC broadcast a handful of races back in 1981. An upstart cable network, ESPN, broadcast that year’s Atlanta season finale. Buoyed by the ratings ESPN announced they would broadcast six live Cup races the following years. Most of us weren’t too sure cable TV wasn’t just a fad that would fail, though when MTV debuted in August of 1981 my friends and I watched it for like 48 hours straight.

To further put things in perspective when Ricky Rudd started his 700 race streak Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman were three years old. Presumably the only thing they were driving was their parents crazy as they tried to potty train the lads. (And my guess is some doctor was saying, “It’s nothing to worry about Mrs. Newman. Kids grow at different rates and I’m sure eventually little Ryan is going to develop a neck soon.)

Of the car companies that competed in Winston Cup that year Buick, and Oldsmobile have fallen by the wayside at least as far as racing. (And Oldsmobile is about to become extinct all together.) Chrysler was down for the count in 1981. Three tracks that hosted races in 1981, Riverside, College Station TX, and North Wilkesboro are no longer on the schedule.

On the day Ricky Rudd started his streak Jimmy (not Jimmie) Carter was still in the White House though he was a lame duck and nine days later Ronald Reagan would take up residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Americans were still being held hostage in Iran though that 444 day ordeal would end the same day Reagan took office. That March Reagan would be shot and his press secretary James Brady critically wounded in an assassination attempt. A would-be assassin also seriously wounded Pope John Paul II that year.

The first Space Shuttle, Columbia, flew on its first mission in 1981. Prince Charles married Princess Diana, then 20 years of age, that same year.

The Philadelphia Eagles had just been disgraced by the Wild Card AFC team, the Oakland Raiders. Baseball began its headlong dash to irrelevance with a seven-week player’s strike back in 1981. Those fans that weren’t turned off the sport watched the LA Dodgers beat the New York Yankees in that year’s World Series.

Popular movies in 1981 included Mad Max 2 and Arthur. Your girlfriend probably dragged you to see “Whose Life Is It Anyway?” Popular TV shows back in 1981 included Dynasty (in the less revered pre-Locklear period) Hill Street Blues, Miami Vice and Cagney and Lacey.

Popular songs that year included the Manhattan Transfer’s “Boy From New York City” (doo-wah, doo-wah, doo-wah, ditty…) and the Theme From Arthur. (If you get caught between the moon and New York City…) On the day Rudd started that Riverside race “Feels Like Starting Over” by John Lennon topped the charts. Myself, I was still listening to Shakedown Street and Darkness on the Edge of Town while cruising the packing district in South Philly street racing. Hopeless folkie types could sit around lamenting the death of the VW Beetle (no longer imported after 1979) and getting misty eyed listening to Puff the Magic Dragon (Live) stoned on commercial grade dope which was still $40 an ounce back in 1981.

The first widely accepted home PC was introduced by IBM in 1981 and IBM held 75% of the PC market by the end of the year. They used an MOS-DOS operating system licensed from a new company called Microsoft. None of us knew Bill Gates was Satan back then. Me, I had no idea why anyone would want a computer at home. Like cable TV we sort of figured it was just another fad though we had embraced the Buck Rogers technology of the microwave oven at that point.

1981 may have been the nadir for American made cars back then. As noted Chrysler was trying to keep from going bankrupt by selling K-cars. AMC had the insane notion an alliance with Renault would make them a player again while the Jeep franchise kept them alive. The Mustang, redesigned in 1979 was available with a V8 (a tiny little one) but it wasn’t until 1982 that they’d release the GT version with a two barrel (a four barrel Holley on an aluminum intake was introduced in 1983) and a four speed (the five speed was a mid-83 addition). That car is widely regarded as starting the contemporary muscle car era and yeah, I had one. In 1981 the last of the “second generation” (1970-81) Camaros and Firebirds were being sold. The Trans Am was available with a 301 Turbo engine that wasn’t worthy to drive a cesspool pump. The “Stingray” body Corvette (1968-82)was also on the way out in 1981 though it remained in production until 1982. There was no 1983 Corvette because in that era GM management couldn’t manage a good fart without browning their shorts. There were no mass produced convertible in 1981. The term “SUV” hadn’t been coined yet and if you wanted one you had to pick between a Ford Bronco, Chevy Blazer or Jeep Grand Wagoneer. The only “mini-van” was a VW bus, most likely equipped with a bumper sticker that read, “Warning- I brake for hallucinations and astral projections.” No one was urging us to “Visualize World Peace” yet. Had they we’d probably have assumed it was on cable TV. Front wheel drive, fuel injection and five speeds were still exotic rarities for the most part. The American carmakers made such a gawdawful mess of all three on their first attempts it’s a wonder they still aren’t.

If you were a player on the streets you probably had a tunnel ram, big block, N50-15s, Centerlines and a NOS (pronounced as three letters not “nawssss” in that era) secreted away in the trunk. The hot trend I recall in that era was taking a pickup truck, adding a lift kit and big tires, a tinted Plexiglass bug guard with the truck’s name on it, and an airbrushed front license plate that usually contained images of the moon, a mountain and a wolf. I forget why. Guilty as charged.

On a more personal note days before Ricky Rudd’s streak started I began my final semester of college with the unhappy realization before the year ended I was going to have to work for a living. I still needed a comb, had a 30 inch waist and wore a silver and turquoise earring. I was a Richard Petty fan of course but I really liked Bill Elliott who I’d met in 1979 and I was hoping he’d find a full time ride soon. By the end of 1981 I was on the road with my first job more often than I was home. I’d get home, deposit six weeks worth of paychecks and go out and buy a car. By the end of 1981 “the fleet” consisted of a 70 Boss 302 (46,000 original miles, stock right down to the manifolds and rev limiter, $3000), a Buick GS455 ($1800) a Volvo P1800 ($800) a 71 Skylark convertible ($1200) and an original 1970 Trans Am with a worked 454 Chevy motor and an M22 ($2000 plus $125 dollars worth of Maaco retina burning yellow paint.) The truck followed in 1982. My buddy Ken was dating my sister Jeanne, but I figured that wasn’t going anywhere. (Their eldest is now 16). The Fourth of July that year my buddy Tom and I rolled his Pontiac convertible. Neither of us was hurt too badly but he was on borrowed time for the next eight years. I was going to marry his sister. He was going to kill me if I asked her out.

In short, 1981 was a very long time ago. To think that any driver could have competed in every Winston Cup race since boggles the mind. Congratulations to Ricky Rudd on an impressive achievement.


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